By The Revd Peter Sanlon
Pilgrims know they take wrong turns. We need to ‘repent’ – turn back and get on the right path.
Part of a saving response to Jesus is repentance – an effective turning from wrong behaviour that flows from heartfelt spiritual transformation. John the Baptist showed us how to respond to Jesus; his preaching is still needed today. John condemned religious hypocrites (Mt.3:7), applied the gospel to the workplace (Lk.3:12-14) and condemned sin in rulers (Mk.6:18). For his calls to repentance John was imprisoned and killed. Little wonder we prefer to avoid repentance.
Our world eschews repentance – it prefers rehabilitation or cancelling. If my inner longings and desires are to be accepted by all regardless of their holiness, there can be no repentance. If any wrong done leads to loss of job and reputation, there is no possibility of the restoration that repentance is a door to.
Calvin warned of ‘legal repentance’ – superficial fear motivated external going through the motions of doing what coheres with Christian convictions. Cousin of hypocrisy, legal repentance leads to hell. Instead, we must experience ‘evangelical repentance’ which Calvin defined as ‘a real conversion of our life to God proceeding from a sincere and serious fear of God and consisting of mortification of our flesh and the old man, and the quickening of the Spirit’ (Inst.3.3.5).
Luther observed that repentance is a daily, lifelong journey for the believer. The first of his 95 Theses read, ‘When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Mat.4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.’ Calvin emphasised the inner spiritual reality of genuine repentance, Luther the ongoing perpetual reality of repentance. Our ability to repent increases or decreases over the course of life. Continual incremental hardening of a heart leaves us to face Jesus on the last day saying ‘I never knew you’ (Mt.7:23). BCP services are suffused with calls to repentance – and elegant words that pull our hearts that way.
We must take care to examine our response to Jesus – the Bible urges us to do so. Psalm 51 gives us the model of gospel repentance. 2 Cor.7:10 distinguishes between ‘worldly and godly sorrow.’ The former can fake repentance and prompt feelings that arise from loss of reputation, power or status. The latter leads to the contrition, change and candour that marks genuine repentance. All that Jesus save, repent.
Rev. Dr. Peter Sanlon is rector of Emmanuel Anglican Church, Tunbridge Wells: www.emmanuelanglican.uk